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What we did last weekend

They will pass by Cedar Island as they pull out.

He tells me this as we maneuver our way through a hotel lobby thick with Saturday morning waffle consumers. I ask him about this Cedar Island while he eats his eggs, and he speaks of marshes and wild horses. He expects to be able to spot them from the deck of the ship that is taking him away for most of the year. On deployment. As in military.

A woman at the next table has figured us out. She leans in and says her son will be on board too. “Red headed,” she describes, voicing a name my son recognizes. She has been in town all week saying goodbye and packing up a daughter-in-law and a 7-month-old baby. They’ll be in Ohio with her for a while.

That’s not unusual. Lots of young wives move back home when their Marines are away. To prove the point, my son paints a non-fictional triangle: a friend stationed in France, his wife hunkered down with family in Arizona, and all their worldly belongings deposited in a self-storage unit in Jacksonville, North Carolina. I nod.

We have 36 hours, my husband and I and this son of ours who told us he was going to sign up when he was barely 13. I suppose you should pay attention to what 13-year-olds say, but their record for following through was never very good in our household. He threw the curve. 

The hours we have together are shared with a smattering of family members who have also made this farewell trip. I tell him a hard truth: When I was your age, Son, only two people in the world would have driven 14 hours to see me do anything. You are blessed.

He packs up, and we pack it all in — the last pizza, the last steak, the last trip to Krispy Kreme. He shows us a beach where the granddarlings laugh at the waves.  He cranks a 1980-something Oldsmobile Ciera he and a buddy bought to sell. Along the way, we meet the people who show up in his stories, the ones who have taken him into their hearts and homes. We say thanks. 

There is a checklist, and he is one for taking care of business. Bank account. Check. Car insurance. Check. Oil changed. Check. Phone service. Check. And there are things to sign that I prefer to forget about.

He tells us about the past week of goodbye dinners and truck convoys and a pair of combat boots he sold for $20. “You should have seen what guys were throwing away at the barracks, Mom,” he says. “TVs, clothes, furniture.” I guess when Marines clear out, they clear out.

Twenty-eight hours into this drama we are feeling it heavy. Nine of us find a spot in Room 310 at the Marriott to read from Psalm 143 and sing “We Rest on Thee.” His dad and brother pray aloud. I cannot. 

At 3:45 a.m. the alarms go off and we head to Camp Lejeune. We try to chit chat like everything is normal, but it is difficult. The streets are dark. Everything is dark.

Eventually the glow of lights surrounding the base come into view. A sharp guy (my son would say he was “squared away”) checks IDs at the gate and waves us through. My husband notices the starched hat. (They call them “covers.”)

“That’s a sign he doesn’t go anywhere,” our Marine answers back. He and his brother discuss the width of bunks on board his ship, then we park at the barracks to wait for final room inspection. He points out a guy in cammies climbing through a window: “Must have turned his key in too early.”

He finishes up there, and we head to his command post. The line of white vans is waiting, idling.

In the darkness I can see families huddled together. Wives hanging onto husbands. Marines in shorts come to see their friends off.  As he gathers his gear, we are quiet. We join the crowd listening to instructions about packages and communication issues, then Mattie, his roommate’s mom, takes a photo for us.

He takes his seat in the van and his dad and I move close to the window. Funny, I don’t see the 20-year-old. I see a face that’s about 10, back when he had freckles and a curtain of straight bangs grazing his eyes. 

They pull out, and we hold it together.

Not really.

We are leaving by 5:54 a.m. It feels strange that he is not with us, pointing out the chow hall and rifle range and his truck bay.

Somewhere in a sea bag on his ship is a blanket from Wesson’s American Legion Auxiliary. In his backpack there’s a jump drive full of audio books courtesy of our neighbor and a Kindle we bought him for Christmas. There may (or may not) be some of his sister-in-law’s brownies left.

They will pass by Cedar Island as they pull out.

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.